Circumlocution: the essential word you’ve never heard

I’m fortunate to be good at memorizing vocab, but for a lot of people, it’s a struggle. Getting to native like fluency requires thousands and thousands of words that you may not ever need to use. Honing this one awesome trick will help you get there faster… read on!

Circumlocution is the art of expressing something without actually saying the key word. For you Latin geeks, you probably recognize the circum prefix—around. When you use circumlocution, you talk around something.

Let’s say I’m learning Spanish and I don’t know the word for teacher. But I really need to say something about a teacher! When my circumlocution game is strong, I can just say this:

The woman who teaches me.

Obviously that’s harder to say than simply “teacher”, but if I’ve got the grammar down pat and I’m just lacking a few words, it’s super helpful. Let’s take another example. Maybe I don’t know the word for “incorrect”. I would just say “not right.” It’s that easy!

Although this may seem obvious, think about how many times you’ve held up a conversation when in need of a certain word. Some people just interrupt their sentence with the English word when they’re lacking the proper vocab, or get frustrated and quit trying to speak. If you’re trying to get fluent fast, then you need to be able to take the minimum amount of vocab and make the maximum amount of conversation.

But how do I get there?

It’s as easy as…. Family game night?

There’s a popular game at least here in the States called Taboo. You’re given a card with a word, and you are supposed to describe what it is to your partner, who guesses. Whoever can guess the most is the winner. But there’s a twist: there are five essential words that you aren’t allowed to use. So for example, a card would look like this:

In this example, “watch” is the word that your partner is trying to guess. The words under it are the ones you aren’t allowed to use. This game may seem silly, but it is exactly what you do when practicing circumlocution! It’s an awesome way to practice and get better at this neglected discipline.

If you don’t have anyone to play the game with, you can do it yourself. Stand in a room and try to name all the objects in the room. When you come across one you don’t know, that’s when you have to try to use circumlocution.

Circumlocution isn’t hard to do, but it is worth so much. It’s how I can talk about lots of different things in Italian with only a few hundred words, and how I can talk about most anything in Spanish with a couple thousand. So pick up a set of Taboo and get going!

Sydney Sauer • October 3, 2015

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